Ryan: How did Kevin Harvick get beat at Pocono? A lack of willing followers

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

You never will beat the fastest car in a race by following it.

That seven crew chiefs adhered to that axiom – after many inexplicably resisted its truth in earlier races this season at Richmond and Michigan – is the primary reason Kevin Harvick wasn’t in victory lane last Sunday despite having the fastest car at Pocono Raceway.

Ostensibly, the tipping point was a collision in the pits with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Aric Almirola, necessitating an extra stop that dropped Harvick to 30th on a restart with 40 laps remaining.

But Harvick already had spent 16 laps battling through traffic to reach fifth before the incident and was facing longer odds of earning his seventh win of 2018.

How did this happen to the driver of a dominant No. 4 Ford that started 28th but was in the top 10 within the first nine laps and seemed to be dictating the race in its second stage?

It was a cascading chain of events that began simply enough with a rejection of the groupthink that too often rules the course of a NASCAR race.

With Harvick cruising toward a Stage 2 win and the pits about to close, Kyle Busch, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola and Daniel Suarez peeled off the track.

They sacrificed stage points for improved position to begin the race’s final stint because there was no other way of getting around Harvick.

When he and the rest of the lead-lap cars pitted after the second stage ended, those six cars fell in behind leader William Byron, who also didn’t stop after pitting 13 laps earlier.

Harvick, who led 30 of the first 101 laps, never led again while Busch, Suarez and Jones would finish 1-2-3.

“It definitely changed the course of the race,” said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch.

Losing a spot in the pits would prove costly for Harvick, who restarted ninth – on the inside lane that had been demonstrably worse. He lost four spots on the Lap 105 green flag. He had gained eight back when the yellow flew on Lap 122 but still trailed the leader by 5 seconds and would have had difficulty getting to the front if it had stayed green.

That largely is because there were enough crew chiefs individually willing to take the chance that it might put them at the front while burying Harvick in traffic. Though the six cars pitting on Lap 97 were all Toyotas, Stevens said their decisions weren’t coordinated.

It’s an encouraging sign if you like your races sprinkled with the plot twists that only result from tactical gambits and crew chiefs who possess the agency to make them.

Maybe there have been lessons learned from Richmond, where 15 teams dutifully followed eventual winner Kyle Busch into the pits with nine laps remaining. Or from Michigan, where Clint Bowyer’s team was alone in choosing two tires despite a vast line of dark rain clouds threatening to make the next restart the last.

Perhaps if there had been as many crew chiefs who embraced risks at Pocono, there would have been different outcomes in both races.

And with the regular season growing late, perhaps there will be more.

The opportunities will become only more enticing and not just because of playoff positions at stake.

Driven by the confluence of downward trends in sponsorship and increasing fidelity in the highly engineered simulation programs used for setups, the disparity between the fastest and slowest cars in a Cup field is as great as it’s been in maybe a few decades.

Outrunning the competition might be harder than ever, but outmaneuvering always is an option.

It’s still hard to fault Rodney Childers, though, for being unable to counter the decisions that cost Harvick the victory.

The No. 4 crew chief could have stayed on strategy with the other six drivers by bringing Harvick to the pits, but that would have meant giving away a playoff point. If the pit crew also holds serve, Harvick likely gets a much better restart that could have carried him to a win.

Childers deserves credit for being the first to pit on Lap 20, and his team also rebounded from the loss of its car chief after two inspection failures that lost its pit selection (which probably didn’t help in the accident with Almirola).

There have been several instances over the last five seasons in which pit miscues negated winning opportunities for Harvick, but Pocono largely felt circumstantial.

NASCAR chief operating officer Steve Phelps caused a minor stir before Sunday’s race in taking aim at those reporting team sponsorship declines. Phelps used the oft-cited statistic (though it isn’t exclusive to team sponsors) that 28% of Fortune 500 companies invest in NASCAR (which is up 29 percent since a decade ago, according to NASCAR).

“I think there’s a misconception out there that sponsorship in NASCAR is not doing well, and that’s not true,” Phelps said in helping announce the rebranding of the Gander Outdoors Truck Series. “We have more sponsors in this sport today than we’ve ever had. We’ve got almost half the Fortune 100, almost a third of the Fortune 500. It’s a lot of large companies who are in the sport not because it would be really cool to go racing.  It’s because it works.

“I think this industry tends to focus on the negative. I’m not really sure why.”

That would be a subjective analysis of how sponsorship news has been digested.

How about an objective look at what’s happened with team sponsorships in Cup over the last three years?

Assembled from NASCAR, team releases and news reports, here is a look at some of what has transpired recently.

Sponsors re-signing (beyond 2018): NAPA (through 2020, 26 primary sponsor races annually with Chase Elliott), Shell Pennzoil (through 2022, full season with Joey Logano), FedEx (multiyear, full season with Denny Hamlin), Mountain Dew (through 2020, four primary races annually with Elliott), Fastenal (through 2021, 14 primary races with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. last season), Sunny D (through 2021, five primary races with Stenhouse last season), Fifth Third Bank (through 2021, eight races with Stenhouse last season).

Sponsors arriving: DC Solar (moving into Cup for “double-digit” primary races with Kyle Larson; “handful” with Jamie McMurray); Wyndham Resorts (multiyear, seven primary races this season with Matt Kenseth); John Deere (handful of races with Stenhouse), ITsavvy (multiyear, two primary races with Clint Bowyer this season); World Wide Technology (eight races with Bubba Wallace this season).

Sponsors departing: Target (primary sponsor with Larson in 21 races last season), Lowe’s (36-race primary sponsor this season with Jimmie Johnson), 5-hour Energy (co-primary sponsor with defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. in 30 races this season), GoDaddy (33 primary races with Danica Patrick in 2015), Dollar General (25 primary races with Matt Kenseth in 2016), Farmers Insurance (12 races with Kasey Kahne last season), Great Clips (10 races with Kahne last season), Subway (five primary races with Carl Edwards in 2016), Aaron’s (36 primary races with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2015).

Is chivalry dead in the era of “win and you’re in, so anything goes”?

Justin Allgaier essentially posed the question after Christopher Bell slammed past him for Saturday’s Xfinity Series victory at Iowa Speedway. Allgaier was “salty” about Bell’s pass but also resigned that he would find no sympathy on social media among a fan base that’s been inured to NASCAR as a contact sport.

“It’s cool to watch, and I hope fans got their money’s worth,” Allgaier said in the NBCSN interview above. “But we raced clean all day. I hadn’t touched him all day. It’s just disappointing to get run over like that.”

No one can accuse Bell of doing anything wrong, but Allgaier raises an interesting point: What recourse remains for feeling as if there’s no reward for racing “fairly”?

There are three primary takeaways from Erik Jones’ second-place finish in the Pocono truck race after starting from the rear on about two hours’ notice and no practice:

  • Jones really is that good.
  • Kyle Busch Motorsports’ trucks really are that good.
  • The competition in the truck series … maybe isn’t as good.

The quasi-inversion of the field made for a more intriguing race, but that was the only upside of failing 13 cars in inspection Saturday night after qualifying at Pocono. The starting lineup was finalized nearly four hours after the pole position was “awarded,” and it made the qualifying session seem like a largely empty exercise for those who invested an hour in watching it.

NASCAR can hold teams responsible for the debacle, but culpability isn’t nearly as important as just ensuring it doesn’t happen again.

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks


Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum


It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum


Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups


LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying


LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.